Grade Levels: 3-5, 6-8, 9-12

This lesson plan–developed by the BirdSleuth K-12 project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology–is adaptable for grades 3-12 and features Flap to the Future, a game designed for students to explore and understand how bird adaptations have evolved over millions of years.  

Lesson Plan Common Core State Standards Alignments

Lesson Plan Next Generation Science Standards Alignments

Students will:

  1. Relate locomotion mechanisms from the game to flight adaptations
  2. Demonstrate understanding of the costs and benefits of certain adaptations


  • Computers or other devices with Internet access
  • Interactive whiteboard or other display
  • Paper and pencil


This lesson features a game called Flap to the Future, developed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Before playing the game, share the following background with the class:

Scientists theorize that modern birds evolved from a group of dinosaurs known as theropods. These dinosaurs walked and ran on two feet, and many had feathers. The two dinosaurs in the game, Tawa and Microraptor, were theropods. It is important to remember that evolution is rarely linear. The Tawa did not evolve into Microraptor, which then evolved into the American Robin - all three are possibly separate branches on the tree of avian evolution. Tawa and Microraptor are likely not in modern birds' direct line of ancestry, but were contemporaries of very similar creatures that are of that direct line. Remember that evolution occurs gradually over many generations and millions of years. During that time, there were many steps when certain beneficial features were passed down to offspring, making those offspring more likely to survive in their environment and pass on genes to their offspring. This process is called natural selection. Tawa, Microraptor, and indeed the American Robin are snapshots of specific moments in the history of evolution. While the game levels may not accurately represent the gradual and subtle process of evolution, the species have adaptations that help them to survive in their environment and fulfill certain functions, such as flight or pre-flight abilities.  

Preview and play Flap to the Future to plan how you will adapt it to your students’ needs.  

Preview the printable About Flap to the Future which describes the evolution of bird adaptations as it coordinates with the levels the game. Print out this page to distribute to students.

Read Flap to the Future: SnapThought Prompts for information about SnapThought and specific SnapThought prompts to provide students during game play.

Build background knowledge or reinforce the topic with these BrainPOP movies: Birds, Dinosaurs, Extinction, Natural Selection and Charles Darwin.

Lesson Procedure:

  1. Invite students to play levels 1-3 of Flap to the Future. Allow approximately 20 minutes.
  2. Divide the class into groups of three. Distribute the printable About Flap to the Future to each group and allow time for them to read it.  
  3. Have groups launch the game and click through the Level Select pages to read about each species and review its skill level chart. If you have a My BrainPOP subscription, have students use the SnapThought tool to answer the following questions. Alternatively, students can answer the questions on paper:

    How did the species’ anatomical adaptations (e.g., muscle, size, feathers, appendages, etc.) affect their skill types and levels. Example answers:  
    • The small size of the American Robin and its strong flight muscles (relative to its body) allow it to fly.
    • The leg muscles in the Tawa help it to run quickly.
    • The feathers of the Microraptor help it to glide, but it didn’t have the flight muscles to actually fly.
        How are anatomical structures similar between the three species? How are they different?  
    • All the animals are bipedal, so they run/walk on two feet.
    • The Microraptor and American Robin have wings and flight feathers, while the Tawa has small arms and ‘dino fuzz.’
    • The Microraptor had feathers on all its appendages, but robins do not.
        What are the advantages and disadvantages of each of their features?  
    • The wings of the Microraptor allow it to glide around the branches of tall trees, but its inability to fly makes it hard to navigate dense areas.  
    • The flying or gliding ability of the Microraptor and American Robin allows them to escape predators/dangerous structures and find food in trees.
  4. In preparation for the Create Your Own Bird lesson, have students play the final level of the game and experiment with creating different futuristic birds. Have students brainstorm and discuss how certain features and skills affect the futuristic bird